Men’s Golf: Northwestern hopes to steal Big Ten title away from Illinois

Steven Montero

The state of Illinois can’t hold two Big Ten champion teams, and the Wildcats are on a desperate trek to rip the title out of the Fighting Illini’s hands.

After coming up just short of Big Ten gold last spring, Northwestern fell to second place behind their intrastate rival, Illinois.

This year, it’s the same game with different players. The Cats came into fall without David Lipsky, the 2010 Big Ten champion who lost his crown last spring in his senior season with a third place finish in the tournament. Junior Nick Losole was out with a back injury and played only one fall tournament, in which he completed two of three rounds.

NU was dealt another blow when sophomore Brad Shigezawa decided to transfer. Coach Pat Goss said Shigezawa is the first player to transfer out of NU’s program in more than 25 years.

“We were really depleted in the fall,” Goss said. “But now Nick is healthy and playing and, beyond that, all our players had great winters of practice and are much improved. We’re not the same team we were in the fall.”

After only three top-5 performances in the fall, the Cats look to continue their spring turnaround, highlighted by their third consecutive victory at the Big Ten Match Play Championship and first place at the Rice Intercollegiate.

Under the leadership of seniors Eric Chun and Sam Chien, the young team has cobbled together a more encouraging dynamic. Chien and Chun took turns as the Big Ten Golfer of the Week for the last two weeks, respectively.

Chun said many of the problems in the fall stemmed from the Cats not having time to mature and grow together. Although golf is individual, it’s the overall team score that secures the championship.

“Goss has always told us our aim is to inspire each other and encourage each other into working hard and just love being an NU golfer,” Chun said. “For me just the way I practice, the way I play, the way I carry myself, have to reflect that. I’ve done better this year than in the past years at being positive in speech and in action. Loving all my teammates, supporting them, if they need help, helping them, if they need corrections, moderate them.”

Goss said the reality of “the after-college” has hit the seniors, and they will kick their games into a higher gear.

Chun won the Big Ten individual crown his sophomore year and participated in the 2010 British Open. He said the best way to help NU reach its goals is by improving his own performance.

Freshmen Bennett Lavin and Matthew Negri have seen significant play so far this season. Goss said the duo got a lot of experience under their belts and that they are continuing to improve and contribute to the Cats’ lineup.

But Chien is NU’s secret weapon. After playing only three tournaments in the 2010-11 season, the senior is at the top of his college career. He’s ranked third on the team and broke the tie with Penn State in the first round of Big Ten Match Play.

“I’m so impressed with Sam’s game and how much better of a player he is,” Goss said. “The things he can do on the course are really impressive. Sam’s made great strides toward getting results that match that. If Sam stays confident, believing in what he’s doing, that really makes a huge impact on our team.”

Goss said NU’s win in in the Big Ten Match Play was a great measure of how the Cats perform under pressure. That momentum and the healthy direction in which NU is heading will do nothing but benefit the Cats’ chances at winning the Big Ten Championship and their pursuit of NCAA aspirations.

“The players get put under the squeeze a lot more (in match play) than they do in medal-play golf,” Goss said. “It’s a great opportunity for the kids and a great opportunity for me to see how each of them is firing under true pressure. It’s pretty easy to go through a medal-day tournament and really never get that pressure. In match play it happens almost every hole. It shows our kids have some tough mettle and they can play with the heat on.”

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